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LA exhibit mixes kids and guns as shock advocacy

Fine art photographer Greg Cohen's latest exhibit of photos would look beautiful hanging above the fireplace. If not for the guns.

In one photo, a boy in second or third grade is leaning against a cinderblock wall, playing with the blades of grass growing around him. It’s only on second glance that you notice behind him, almost as if it’s slung around his shoulder, is an AK47. It’s a prop gun, but it looks very real - like it was borrowed from a third world guerrilla fighter.

Cohen created 20 portraits of 3- to 10-year-old kids holding replica guns in an expression of frustration over gun laws and the mass shootings in Newtown a year ago Saturday.  The children sit in tall green grasses, stand in blooming ice plant, or lean on thick tree trunks.

"In this image, it’s in front of her instead of behind the subject - in front of her little pink dress with, you know, sequins on. It’s pretty alarming to me," said Cohen as he approved the prints a few days ago. The exhibit opens Thursday at the Perfect Exposure in Koreatown.

It was the Newtown, Conn. school shootings that prompted Cohen to create this photo series. He grew up next to Newtown.

"You know, we would just bike into town to get some ice cream or go see a movie," he said.

The kids in the photos are all from Southern California - Cohen found them through social media.

"We found out about Greg’s work on a mother’s web site called Boobie Brigade," said architect Scott Wolf.

Like Cohen, Wolf believes guns should be more strictly controlled. He volunteered his son Theo to be photographed.

"What we’re looking at is a photograph of my five year-old son holding the sawed-off shotgun and he’s sort of playing with it in a casual way, not knowing what it is, or what it represents, or what it may be," he said looking at the photo on a computer screen in his Los Angeles studio.

If he had his way, Wolf would require every gun owner to get liability insurance. He hopes the exhibit makes a difference for Theo and his generation.

"What I want him to think is that he took part in something important, that he took part in the beginning of opening a new discussion about violence and about gun violence," he said.

This series is a far cry from Cohen's previous work. He's taken technically stunning shots of Buddhist monks in Laos and shot fun images of dogs lapping up the wind from the windows of their owner's cars.

The photos aren't endearing to everyone. Gene Hoffman of the Calguns Foundation, believes they're sensationalist.

"I think it’s an attempt to make the conversation emotional but the problem is that that kind of cuts both ways," he said. "Firearms in the law-abiding citizens' hands defend kids just as much as they’re misused against children or more."

To have a greater impact, Cohen’s exhibit will include recorded interviews of gun violence victims that patrons can play on headphones. Last week he interviewed Loren Lieb, whose 6-year-old son was shot in the leg and hip by a mentally ill, white supremacist who stormed into the North Valley Jewish Community Center in 1999.

"I think this series of photographs will reach a new audience," she said, " and I think that’s what we have to try and do, is speak to people wherever they happen to be," such as fine art galleries, churches, and schools.